The one where everything changes…

What an amazing year it’s been.

Unless 2017 somehow trumps 2016 (yes, that’s sort of a pun – with him as the ‘leader of the free world’ who knows what will happen), I think we’ll all remember 2016 for a long-time.

We’ve lost some of our biggest cultural heroes. I’ve lost at least two absolute heroes – Bowie and Prince.

What else… anything important… oh, I’m set to become a father for the first time at 45.

Yes. I know.

It’s amazing!

Amazing, exciting, terrifying, and just about every other emotion possible.

I’d given up on the possibility a long-time ago after a number of very painful failed pregnancies with my first wife.

It just became something I accepted. Some people have children, I wouldn’t. There are other things to do in life.

But then I met Bea who is a few year younger than me (she would want me to say ‘quite a lot’ of years younger but she’s not that much younger!)

And, after getting engaged, booking our wedding in the UK, booking the flights for all the Spanish part of the family (Bea’s side), we then find out Bea is pregnant and she wouldn’t be able to travel at that time…

So, eventually, we managed to change the date of the wedding, re-arrange the registrar, tell people the date had changed… except we didn’t check the flights.

And it turns out the flights people were set to take back to Spain on the Sunday evening after the afternoon wedding don’t fly in March…

Anyone got a private jet available on March 19th? 😉

We’ll have to see what we can do. Worst case we’ll have to change the date again, but it’s getting a bit ridiculous.

Work wise, it’s been pretty fantastic too. We’ve seen huge growth, as we have every year since starting in 2006, and despite new entrants to the market, we’ve had our best year ever. We know from customer feedback – rather than just wishful thinking – that this is largely because we are trusted to do a good job, our customer service is a point of pride to us, and customers know we’ve been in the market a long time and for the right reasons. We didn’t just to jump on a bandwagon hoping to get rich quick.

From my point of view, my diagnosis of sleep apnea at the start of the year has made a massive difference. It’s bizarre to think that this time last year I was stopping breathing on average 30 times an hour when I ‘slept’. It meant I wasn’t getting any real sleep and explains why I had so little energy and was falling asleep during the day.

But now I sleep with a CPAP mask and machine (which luckily I love using, unike some users) and my work life has changed dramatically. And as a bonus – I no longer snore, although to be honest they never bothered me that much… 😉

We’ve launched a new version of The Alcohol-Free Shop web site so it is finally mobile-friendly (yes, we’ve joined the 21st Century at last!) and that’s just the start of major improvements to our systems that will improve the working environment for our staff and our customers’ experience.

We’re also working on some amazing developments that will transform our business. More on that when I can talk about it. But I can say they are very exciting and 2017 could be one of those years when things really change dramatically.

So, all-in-all, 2016 has been a bit of a mixed bag globally but pretty amazing personally. I’m really looking forward to 2017!

I hope you and yours had a great year, or at least not the worst, and that 2017 is great for you too!

Personal, Politics, Technology

Libraries Still Matter

I’ve never been a big reader of fiction. I have my favourites but they’re drawn from a fairly small selection. But I do love books. And I always have.

As a child I possibly spent more on library fines than anything else.

I would always leave the library with the maximum 8 books. I just didn’t always return them on time…

Sometimes it was on subjects I knew and loved, but sometimes it was on only semi-related, or even random, subjects. I had – and still have – an insatiable thirst for knowledge.

Leaving aside the wider political issue of the wisdom of austerity vs investing in the country, the cuts to the library service that are taking place at the moment are a national disgrace.

One of the main arguments, put very simply, is we have the internet now so we can’t justify the cost of libraries when the limited money could be better spent in other areas.

This – as author, campaigner, and my friend Dom Conlon explains far more politely than I am about to – is bullshit.

Yes, the internet is incredible. I remember when I first got access to the internet and used ‘gopher’ to access universities around the world. It was amazing.

And with the development of the web and browsers in the early 90s it became easier to use and – well, we all know the rest.

But access to information isn’t the same as the knowledge of how to find it.

Imagine you’re looking for a part or a tool for a DIY job. Unless you’re an expert you’ll probably need some help. In the old days, and in some very rare cases still, you’d go to a shop and the staff would know exactly what you needed to do the job.

They had years of experience and had seen everything. These days, with the big sheds, you’ll be lucky if they can point you to the right aisle.

Librarians are specialists. They not only have a love and passion for books, but they have the experience to be able to help you find what you need.

They can be the difference between a child finding the first thing that comes to hand, or finding something truly special that may actually go on to shape their life.

And for older people in particular, libraries are a place to meet and talk. For some it’s the only chance they get to socialise all week. And if you get the children and the older people talking you’ve got a recipe for magic.

One of the few fiction books I did love as a child was one I bought from my local library when they were selling some books off. It was a collection of short sci-fi stories.

It contained a novella by EM Forster called The Machine Stops, first published in 1909. Set in a dystopian future where people live alone in underground pods, and the only commodity is information – and not necessarily correct information – it’s an amazing story which effectively foretold the invention of the internet.

I don’t want to stretch the comparison too far, but it does remind me of the arguments that people can find information online. Yes, they can. But without real human interaction that’s only part of the story.

The Machine Stops is now more widely known, largely because of its predictions about the internet, but at the time I found it at the library it was an obscure work. It certainly helped shape my life and my views – as did many of the books I borrowed.

Dom has been superb in his campaigning to try to prevent the closure of not just his local library, but library services in general. Sadly – as long as we continue with austerity – he’s fighting a losing battle. But credit to him and the other people involved for going down fighting. And shame on those who are rubber-stamping the cuts.

The video above is of Dom talking passionately about the library closures and explaining the many reasons why libraries still matter. It’s a great interview and well worth watching.

Another side to every story – how the late Duke helped Manchester

I know I’m going to upset or even lose some friends over this, but…

I woke up to the sad news that the Duke of Westminster had died suddenly at 64. As is the norm these days, I took to twitter to express my condolences.

Immediately a friend – of a similar left-leaning persuasion – replied saying it was nice to see a positive comment. Puzzled, I asked what he meant. He explained that last night on twitter had been ‘horrible’.

I can’t be bothered to search and read the tweets. I can guess. Rich man dies. Boo hoo. Rich kid takes over. What an arsehole. That sort of thing, I presume.

And I can easily imagine some of the people saying these things being either friends, or strangers who I have a natural political association with.

I’m not going to try to change anyone’s mind on the subject. Everyone can view the late Duke, the new Duke, and the whole system, how they want.

But I do want to put forward another side to the story.

I can’t claim I knew the Duke, although I did meet him once, but more importantly I know about the huge amount of charity work he did.

He was the President of Forever Manchester (the Community Foundation for Greater Manchester) from the mid 1990s until 2014 when he accepted the role of Honorary Life President.

Forever Manchester is a charity that funds and supports community activities across Greater Manchester. It’s given out over £35 million pounds since 1989 and benefited over a million people.

The list, and breadth, of groups it supports would be impossible to document, but as an example they help organisations including teaching young people fishery management, training in car mechanic qualifications for hard to reach young people not in employment, education or training, mental health awareness campaigns, support for lesbian and bi-sexual asylum seekers, a choir set up for people who have been or are currently being treated for cancer, film making organisations, senior citizen Christmas parties, community gardening projects…

I could go on. Really. I could spend all week writing about the great projects they’ve helped fund over the last few decades.

If you can think of a project that a community group can do, you can almost guarantee it either has, or could, get funding from Forever Manchester.

I know this because my late father – a lifelong socialist and Labour councillor – served on the board of Forever Manchester for many years and I know from him, and Nick Massey, the Chief Executive of Forever Manchester, just how vital the Duke’s support was.

Indeed, in a press release today, Nick Massey said:

Quite simply Forever Manchester would not have made it into the noughties had it not been for the generosity and support of the Duke of Westminster. He understood the value of local communities and that money can’t buy happiness and health.

As an example of hard-cash, in 1999 he fronted the Helping Hand Appeal where he personally matched over £1 million of donations from the public and local businesses.

Ok, I can hear some saying that £1 million out of an estimated fortune of nearly £10 billion by the time he died is nothing. But it’s still £1m more than many rich people give. And it wasn’t the only project he was involved in. He was involved in many.

But more importantly than just matching donations, he put his name, his fame, his connections and his time into the charity. He helped cajole others to put their hands in their pockets. Whatever the rights and – especially – wrongs of inherited wealth, people like the late Duke can make a huge difference.

Yes, he was born into wealth and inherited his fortune – although it’s fair to say he managed and developed that fortune well. Not all people who are gifted such wealth do as well. There’s quite a list of people in similar situations who end up in a life of bored drug addiction and hedonism.

But, even though I’m a socialist (albeit a ‘non-alcoholic champagne socialist’ maybe), I don’t judge people by the fortunes (or misfortunes) of their birth. I judge them on how they choose to live their lives.

The Duke did a number of things that make him stand out and led me to being upset when I heard the news.

In 1999 he admitted to having suffered a breakdown and depression. For a man of such family connections and countless important business dealings, this was a very brave thing to do (and no, it shouldn’t be brave to admit it, but sadly it is still today, and it was especially brave back in 1999).

As he said at the time

You can’t buy happiness, you can’t buy health and you can’t buy inner peace. People think a new video recorder or a fast car will make them happy but they don’t.

Sure, life is easier when you never have to worry about paying the bills, but having money doesn’t make life automatically easy.

He sent his children to local state primary schools, ensuring they mixed with people from outside the normal circles of the family. Yes, they went on the private schools after that but Hugh Grosvenor, the new Duke, then chose to study countryside management at Newcastle University.

The late Duke understood the importance of giving his children a grounding in life – especially Hugh, as he was aware of the responsibility his son would face when this day came and Hugh inherited the estate.

When Hugh was eight he said

It’s something I think about a lot. He’s been born with a silver spoon in his mouth and it’s my job to take it out. He’s got to be aware that to be as fortunate as he is, he has to give something back. He has responsibilities to himself and to a multitude of other people. I think he will but you never know.

Hopefully the late Duke will have done a good job, and the new Duke will continue the great philanthropic work his father did.

I don’t know if he is already involved, but if he isn’t, maybe he could start – after he has had time to deal with the obvious grief he will be feeling right now – with making a commitment to continuing to support Forever Manchester.

Inherited wealth on this scale is far from ideal. But it’s the world we currently live in. Hopefully it will change one day.

But whilst we live in such a world, we shouldn’t attack those who use their wealth and influence for the greater good. The immediate alternative is they simply stop helping.

And that would leave a lot of community groups, and millions of people, far worse off than they already are.